For most of the world, it had been a while since a Frenchman — even one, like Lambert, born in New York — had been an
emblem of cool. For the French, though, he had a familiar air: with his close-set eyes and heavy brow, Lambert was a
ringer for Jean-Paul Belmondo, the star of 1960s nouvelle vague pearls including A Bout de
Souffle. His version of Belmondo’s simian features was tidier and more conventionally beautiful, but it can
only have helped him secure his breakthrough role as Tarzan in Greystoke, released a year before
Greystoke director Hugh Hudson, recalling the casting, identified another aspect of Lambert’s appeal. He
plucked him from the audition line-up, he said, because of a “strange quality” in his eyes. This, one of the actor’s
defining qualities, turned out to have a rather mundane cause, as the director discovered: “Somehow, because he was
myopic, when he took his glasses off, he couldn’t really see properly, so he would seem to look through you into the
Chosen as king of the jungle, the bespectacled nine-stone weakling was built up into a 14-stone rippling gymnast over
six months and a series of ape-acting workshops. Though this was new, he was by then reasonably experienced. After a
childhood moving with his French diplomat father from New York, where he was born in 1957, to boarding school in
Geneva and then Paris, he was eased into banking in London, but managed to wriggle his way out and into the
prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. Though he consistently paints his career as a series of lucky breaks, handed to
him almost against his will, acting was the only career he wanted.
Completing his ascent to emblematic status was 1986’s Highlander, another time-capsule-worthy piece of
eighties cinema. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Australian who had made his name in music videos, including the
state-of-the-art pomp and grandeur of Ultravox’s Vienna and Duran Duran’s Rio, this muddle of
fighting and pouting had Lambert alongside Sean Connery as a pair of immortal swordsmen battling a perpetual nemesis
through time and fiendishly poor dialogue. Again, it was the gaze that did it. “His eyes had a timeless quality,”
said Mulcahy, reminiscing on the 30th anniversary of his strangely enduring creation.
Unfortunately, where Subway had allowed Lambert’s presence to do the talking, here he was given a challenge
to which he simply couldn’t rise: a Scottish accent. From the safe distance of 30 years of cult success, he told one
interviewer that his agent had been canny enough to sign him for the film before the studio realised that, despite
his legal status as both Christopher and Christophe, he spoke English “like Inspector Clouseau”. Daily four-hour
dialect coaching did little to change this, but since the stubbornly Scottish-accented Connery was playing a
Spanish-Egyptian, it didn’t perhaps matter. The film was a huge hit and Lambert conquered a third sector of the
Now at the height of his fame, Lambert was hanging out with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in New York, totem of a
certain strand of eighties chic that had now become mainstream. Fortunately, he was remarkably capable of handling
what his countrymen dubbed ‘Lambert mania’. With the same insouciance he exhibited on screen, he was able to discern
the difference between image and reality in the midst of a decade that increasingly confused the two. “There was me,
Christophe, and the other Christophe, the movie star who was worshipped,” he told a French magazine much later.
“Between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, I’m another guy.” That said, he married within the profession — to another star of the
era, Diane Lane, in 1998 — and consistently paired up with fellow actors. From 2007 he was with Sophie Marceau, and
is currently with Italian Camilla Ferranti.
No matter how down to earth he remained, he couldn’t have expected his fall to come every bit as fast as his ascent.
He recently claimed he could see it coming when he went to buy a paper and “saw my mug on 70 magazine covers… The
public had had it up to here with Christophe Lambert.” But his lead in Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian in
1987 was slammed, influential U.S. critic Gene Siskel comparing his acting to “a member of the walking dead”. From
then on he couldn’t seem to do anything right. It was as if, as the nineties retreated into the security of
nostalgia, he reminded everyone just too much of the hubris and novelty of the decade gone by. The arrival of a
universally loathed Highlander sequel in 1991, to which he was contractually tied, didn’t help, and a
succession of thrillers failed to convince. Then 1995’s Mortal Kombat attached him in the public
consciousness to a series of vaguely camp, rather downmarket fantasy and sci-fi flicks. He was working but it was
not work worthy of a man who had defined an era.
Pleasingly, however much the more malevolent critics wished it, the joke has never been on him. By the first decade
of the 21st century, Lambert was alternating cash-rich comic-book movies such as Ghost Rider: Spirit of
Vengeance with arthouse fare like Claire Denis’ White Material, where he starred alongside Isabelle
Huppert, and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! In the meantime, he’d also built a career as a producer,
beginning with the 1994 French comedy Neuf Mois and its Hugh Grant-starring American remake, Nine
Months. There were also two novels, a mineral water business and, perfectly Gallicly, partnership in a vineyard
producing his own wine, Les Garrigues de Beaumard-Lambert.
He remains perfectly at ease with his past. While for many who lived it the eighties is still viewed through a filter
of shame, to generations since its unselfconscious extravagance seems like the last time Europe was looking forward.
Christophe Lambert is able to enjoy his part in it, so perhaps he wasn’t shortsighted after all.
This article originally appeared in Issue 63 of The Rake.